Stations of the Tide (1991) by Michael Swanwick

Don't miss out on the other works by Michael Swanwick:
Vacuum Flowes (1987) Book Review
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Set in the far future on Miranda, a planet that is subject to bicentennial cataclysmic ice cap melts and under the control of a colonial-style orbital data system, Stations of the Tide presents a nightmarishly surreal vision of humanity caught in a dance macabre with monstrous, sentient technology. The novel won the Nebula Novel award (1992) and the SF Chronicle Novel award (1992).

The water level is now rising and Miranda’s technologically primitive population is in the throes of evacuating the planet under the auspices of the orbital authority. A bureaucrat, known only as ‘the Bureaucrat’ – a representative of the orbital Division of Technology Transfer – is charged with apprehending Aldebaran Gregorian, an elusive magician who publicly claims to be in possession of a proscribed technology that can transform humans into aquatic creatures, better adapting them for the planet’s bicentennial tides. As the bureaucrat makes his way across Miranda, a Conradian quest begins where he sinks deeper and deeper into an alienated world where the lines between science and magic soon become blurred.

Stations of the Tide is rich in mysteries. Perhaps the greatest puzzle of all – a core theme of the book that remains largely unsolved – is the question of the exact nature of a vaguely described cataclysmic event that took place in Earth’s past an led to the draconian technology transfer laws now being imposed on the Mirandans. Swanwick approaches the question in a similar vein to Gene Wolfe in Book of the New Sun (1980-1983), feeding the reader only hints and fragments. When we learn of the existence of departments for genocide and technology transfer, we can infer that technological developments in Earth’s past led to disaster. We are told that cloning is banned and that machines genetically modified humans on Earth, and even though very little detail is given, we might be led to assume that Earth fell victim to a technological singularity of sort.

The concept of singularity is also developed in events that take place in the Puzzle Palace, a virtual reality nexus of human knowledge. On the one hand, the Puzzle Palace is conventionally designed as a virtual world, meant to function as a centralised place for storing data and meeting people, serving as a virtual hub for an interstellar civilisation. The Bureaucrat uses the palace as a virtual office and it allows him to split off copies of himself and have them interact with other bureaucratic officials, creating a byzantine virtual world of intrigue and office politics. In a story from his past, he relates that he had maintained an amorous relationship here, having never met his counterpart in real life. On the other hand, the Puzzle Palace has morphed into a weird and threatening space, hosting for example ‘Earth’, now an imprisoned AI. To the Bureaucrat’s question of what it wants from humanity it answers:

“What does any mother want from her daughters? I want to help you. I want to give you advice. I want to reshape you into my own image. I want to lead your lives, eat your flesh, grind your corpses, and gnaw the bones.”

Swanwick’s strategy of estrangement also takes a leaf out of Gene Wolfe’s work by conflating magic with science. It remains uncertain whether the magic the Mirandans believe in is scientifically based or not. By the same token, the Mirandans are just as puzzled by off-worlder technology as the Bureaucrat is by local superstitions. Like the land surveyor known only as K. in Franz Kafka’s The Castle (1926), the Bureaucrat is entirely estranged in this alien, hostile environment. He understands little from the Mirandans’ strange rituals and superstitions, he is baffled by local sexual mores, and he always seem to be treading water. This blurring of the territorial lines between science fiction and fantasy, a theme Swanwick has explored in several works, was later fully developed in the work of M. John Harrison and China Mieville.